Monday, February 25, 2008

The Illusionist

Steven Millhauser doesn’t traffic in emotional upheaval or interpersonal conflict. Most fiction writers try to make characters seem like real people, but Millhauser flattens them, giving his books the paradoxical effect of seeming realer than reality. For him, meticulous observation does the work of psychology. Millhauser is also our foremost animist: in his stories, mannequins walk out of department store windows and figures in paintings knock hats off innocent bystanders. His vehicles for these effects are the parable and the confession. There is a disquieting quiet to every Millhauser sentence that makes it immediately recognizable, a feeling that each was recorded for posterity by the last man living.

The 13 terrific stories in “Dangerous Laughter” reintroduce us to this strange realm, last glimpsed five years ago in Millhauser’s previous collection, “The King in the Tree.” After one story described as an “Opening Cartoon,” he divides the rest into three sections: “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures” and “Heretical Histories.” (You can recombine the adjectives and nouns at will.) Together, they present the typical Millhauser gallery of obsessed miniaturists, bookish adolescent boys in thrall to mysterious evanescent girls and reports from a dystopian near-future told with ill-considered confidence by town leaders. But over the years Millhauser’s elegant midcentury prose has only gotten stronger, and here he moves his chosen themes forward with additional confidence and power.

In the section called “Vanishing Acts,” Millhauser presents people who in one way or another cease to be. The book’s title story features an ordinary high school girl whose talent for orgasmic laughter allows her to enjoy a surge in popularity when a hilarity epidemic sweeps through a town’s teenage crowd one summer — only to result in her death after her classmates drop her to take up communal weeping.

The adolescent narrator of “The Room in the Attic” befriends Wolf, a hip new classmate whose sister is beset by an unspecified illness that has kept her out of school. These two, Isabel and Dave, conduct a relationship for months in her darkened room, knowing each other entirely by voice and occasional touches. Dave grows quietly obsessed, but at the climactic moment, when Isabel is about to throw open the curtains, he flees. When he comes back, a few days later, she’s gone — sent, according to her mother, to live with an aunt in Maine. “She loved games, all sorts of games,” Dave realizes early on. Now he begins to wonder whether Isabel wasn’t his own game, more dream than reality.

The slippery self is also the theme of “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” in which an ordinary woman returns to her rented apartment one evening but never emerges. The police investigate and find no sign of a crime — and no sign of Elaine Coleman. The door was locked, the windows shut, the key left inside, along with the woman’s wallet. “Is it true that whatever has once been seen is in the mind forever?” the narrator asks, only to recognize that this is not so. Elaine Coleman, he concludes, unloved, gradually disappeared, “fading, fixed ... in the long habit of not being noticed.”

The section called “Heretical Histories” contains a set of alternate recent pasts. Harlan Crane, the subject of “A Precursor of the Cinema,” is a “minor illustrator” in New York during the “seductive prehistory” of the film industry, when “a host of brilliant toys, spectacles and entertainments ... produced vivid and startling illusions of motion.” Crane’s paintings, displayed at his Phantoptic Theater, are so lifelike that many observers insist they can see them move. The illusion (perhaps “a shared hallucination,” the newspapers speculate) leads to riots and the death of a spectator. The city closes the Phantoptic before this potentially remarkable bridge to the inanimate world can be confirmed.

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